Among the many movies I felt The Emoji Movie was borrowing themes and approaches from as I reviewed its campaign, TRON was among the most prominent. While Inside Out or Wreck-It Ralph might be more current examples of stories taking place inside a hidden world filled with characters we were unaware of, TRON kept coming back to mind. That’s likely due in large part to my age. I’m 42 and so was nine when TRON hit theaters 35 years ago this month. It’s a childhood favorite I revisited often and so is a solid, fixed cultural touchpoint in my life.
The story was, for 1982, cutting edge. Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) was a computer programmer at ENCOM, a huge technology company that develops various kinds of software. He was fired in disgrace and his work stolen by Ed Dillinger (David Warner) and now runs a popular arcade. When two current ENCOM employees, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan) find there may be shady happenings at the company they enlist Flynn’s help to hack into the system and see what’s going on. Flynn is only too happy to do so since he believes evidence still exists somewhere of how Dillinger stole his programs and forced him out. The AI Master Control Program that runs ENCOM isn’t thrilled with that and so uses company technology to scan Flynn and transport him into the computer system. There he discovers a whole world of anthropomorphic computer programs that resemble their users, including TRON (who looks like Alan) and Yori (who looks like Lora). The three team up to take down the MCP and his lackey Sark (who looks like Ed) and restore freedom to the system.
The theatrical poster immediately establishes what the audience can expect, which for the early 80s was pretty mind-blowing. Specifically, the copy promises the story takes place in “A world inside the computer where man has never been. Never before now.” We see TRON and Yori standing on one of the game grids that will be part of one of the movie’s more memorable sequences, him reaching out toward a disk that’s floating either toward or away from him, it’s hard to tell. Their costumes look like circuit boards, making it clear the story is based on technology.
Let’s stop here and consider a few things. First, There’s a clear effort here to evoke the first poster for Star Wars, which features Luke reaching out toward the sky with his lightsaber. Second, let’s keep in mind the time period. As portrayed in the movie, 1982 was a time of dummy terminals that accessed a mainframe you needed to schedule processing time on. There was only so much power available and it had to be spread around to everyone on the network. Apple was just a few years old and the personal computer market was still the territory of hobbyists who largely built their own machines. So the idea that people knew what was happening under the beige plastic covers of the machines more of them were being asked to use was kind of out there. That makes the promise to find out what’s going on inside the network all that more far-fetched (and presumably interesting), because the vast majority of the audience had likely never used a computer, or had only done so marginally at work.
The trailer starts out by intoning just how intelligent those mysterious machines were becoming. The ENCOM 511 is referred to as an extension of the human intellect, one that will protect itself at all costs and is about to become our ultimate enemy. We then move over to the story and see Flynn discussing the plans to break in with Alan before Flynn is captured by the MCP and taken prisoner inside the digital world. That world is filled with danger and we’re shown some of the gladiatorial events he’s forced to compete in just to survive. There are light cycles and destroyer tanks and more. Finally, the narrator invites us to enter the world of TRON in the summer.
What the trailer does well is show off the look and feel of the digital world. The introduction is a bit shaky and seems to move as quickly past the events in the human world to get immediately to what happens once Flynn is inside the computer and fighting his way out. Flynn yells at one point about “the evidence” but it’s never explained what that’s all about and what exactly he’s looking for.
Instead the message is more that the machines are dangerous things that are out to destroy us. They’re smarter than us and will do what they need to in order to ensure their own survival. That’s the premise that was sold to the audience in 1982, that they could expect a journey inside the beating heart of an ominous foe they likely didn’t understand. That doesn’t quite jibe with the message of the movie, though the MCP certainly has less-than-noble intentions in the story. Those specifics aren’t shown, though, in favor of more vague concerns about the encroaching and possibly dangerous nature of the machines that were becoming part of people’s everyday lives.